Abelard and mashed potatoes

Opinion: Columns

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By Jim Bowman


Great time the other day among the Golden Friars, each of whom has had his golden anniversary of graduation from Fenwick. Among them, my classmates and I rank among the most golden, 65 years and counting since we walked the aisle and ascended the stage.

The gathering meant Mass in the gym, sitting on folding chairs rather close to each other. (Note to arrangements committee: A little more knee and thigh room next time.) The principal celebrated, presided, whatever, with a nice mixture of aplomb and informality, assisted by a theology teacher who also coaches soccer.

Neither qualified as golden, the principal noted, looking to the other side of the altar at a half dozen Dominicans who did.

These included the personally golden Rev. William Bernacki, whom I know from his coming often to our class' luncheon reunions, which we've been having for 20 years or so.

Fr. Bernacki, one-time Fenwick principal now holding forth (and on) at St. Pius, 19th and Ashland, is not an alumnus, however, having been part of the first Taft High School graduating class in 1943 — "Saint Taft," he called it, sitting at a restaurant table some years back.

He's the sort of Dominican I remember from the late '40s — such as the ascetic-looking Fr. James Regan, whom I write about in my book Company Man: My Jesuit Life, 1950-1968. He was a religion teacher who made the Gospel real for those of us with religious leanings, mining newspapers and magazines for latter-day examples of what Jesus and the Apostles were talking about.

Another religion teacher, Fr. John D. Malone, taught church history and was less about personal reformation than fascination with the institution. Fr. Malone, a burly fellow with a prominent incision dent on his largely bald head, went by "Canvasback" in some quarters, in honor of his supposed wrestling career, or more commonly, "Butch."

His history lessons included an account of the disedifying but riveting story of Eloise and Abelard, one of history's most famous couples. Eloise, a cathedral canon's niece and an acclaimed scholar, fell in love with the super-scholar Peter Abelard, who returned the compliment but treated her badly and was "deballed" (Fr. Malone's word) by the vengeful canon's men.

His and Eloise's loss, however, was academia's gain, as Abelard, understandably shaken, resumed his scholar's career, now as a monk, earning from one standard current source the description of "keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th Century." Eloise became a nun and eventually a star in her own right, not to mention a highly regarded physician.

This was Fr. Malone's using a good story to bring us into the flow. He got my attention, as you see.

Another scholarly churchman he mentioned stuck in my mind over the years. This was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who in 1486, at age 23, took on all comers in defending 900 (!) theses, or propositions, in religion, philosophy, natural philosophy and magic (!). Those were fairly free-wheeling days indeed. Both famous men did prison time for the venturesome nature of some of their teachings.

I had to look them up, of course. But Butch Malone remained in my memory as a rough-hewn respecter of the life of the mind.

He also ran the lunchroom. He'd stand at the cash register in his white robe, sleeves rolled up, taking our nickels and dimes for meat and mashed potatoes under gravy, a friar of many talents.

The other day after the Golden Friars Mass, while major-gifts people were talking us up before our catered lunch, classmate Jim Shanahan nudged me. He had Fr. Malone on his mind, and the 1940s lunchroom, and our own lunch coming up, and wondered how we would react if we saw him in his old role. "The mashed potatoes!" I said, each of us whispering in our folding chairs.

As for the Abelard episode, in one of our bedtime reading sessions many years back — our two boys and I — I told them the Malone rendition, to much snickering and chuckling. Months later I ran into him at the Priory on Harlem and told him about that, and we had a good laugh.

A nice memory.

Email: jimbowman7@aol.com Twitter: @BlitheSp

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